While big-box and grocery-store pharmacy departments boasted lower prices overall, we found that sales and discounts via loyalty cards were far more prevalent at stand-alone pharmacies. We shopped without regard for sale prices because there's no guarantee that a product will be available at a discount, or with a coupon, at any given time.
But many consumers we spoke with said a rewards program was an incentive to shop at a stand-alone drugstore and to choose one chain pharmacy over another. Kathleen Koechlin, of Columbus, Ohio, shops at CVS instead of Walgreens because she considers CVS's program more generous and user-friendly. Kelly Makowski of Waldo, Ohio, chooses Walgreens because she can convert loyalty points earned on prescriptions into free items, an especially valuable benefit around the holidays. Janelle Sender, of Milford, Del., shops for her family of five exclusively at Rite Aid with the goal of reaching a status (measured in point totals) high enough to receive a shopping pass good for a discount on most items through the end of the following calendar year.
Mass merchants and supermarkets likewise lure consumers with incentives. Christy Rowland, of Columbus, Ohio, uses her Kroger Plus card to accumulate fuel points, which was a deciding factor in her choice to patronize the Kroger pharmacy. Target pharmacy customers are rewarded with a 5-percent-off shopping pass for every five prescriptions filled, a bonus that stacks on top of a 5-percent discount for using a Target RedCard (debit or credit).
It may come as no surprise that stand-alone drugstores carry a significantly better selection of pharmacy and personal-care products than mass merchants, especially when it comes to store brands. Among the retailers discussed here, CVS boasted the largest inventory. The store we visited dedicated one entire side of an aisle to shampoo and conditioner, plus half an aisle to specialty/salon brands. The number of specialty hair-care products alone was equivalent to the entire selection at Kroger, Target, or Walmart
The Rite Aid store we visited featured a "Food Mart," which increased the selection of grocery items. However, compared with the other stand-alone drugstores, the rest of the pickings were slim, namely in beauty and personal care. Whereas CVS offered nearly 40 options in women's disposable razors, Rite Aid displayed slightly more than half as many. This was the case for most of the items on our shopping list, and numerous consumers we interviewed corroborated that finding. Sara Seybold, of Cleveland, Ohio, says she shops at Rite Aid out of convenience but has found the selection -- even for prescription drugs -- limited and must go elsewhere for a particular antibiotic her daughter needs. Lisa Keller of Marysville, Ohio, says she chooses CVS or Walgreens because she rarely finds what she is looking for at the local Rite Aid.
Nine of the 10 consumers we interviewed said they would choose a store that was closer to home and more convenient over one that was cheaper. Even if other shoppers hold a different view, there's no denying the appeal of a nearby location, value-added services, and one-stop shopping.
All the pharmacies we visited offered conveniences such as automatic prescription refills, text/phone/email reminders, home delivery, and online prescription management. A drive-thru has become another common perk and was embedded in the CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Kroger outlets we visited (Kroger had a "walk-up," too). Select Walmart stores also operate drive-thru pharmacies; Target does not. CVS far outpaces the rest with more than 900 health clinics nationwide. Overall it's the second-largest chain behind Walgreens, which counts more than 8,000 locations. Rite Aid is a distant third and scarcely registers on the health clinic scale.
The pharmacy-related benefits were similar across the six chains, but other services and types of merchandise varied in availability and convenience. At the stand-alone drugstores, photo services, movie rental machines, ATMs, and a small selection of grocery items were available in addition to the usual products. Still, multiple consumers noted in interviews that a key factor in their choice of pharmacy was the ability to complete multiple tasks in one stop -- including a full grocery shop, which cannot be accomplished at a stand-alone drugstore. Gina Holbrook, of Columbus, Ohio, pointed out that she can pick up groceries at Kroger while waiting for prescriptions to be filled.
One disadvantage of turning to a mass merchant for pharmacy items is that the closest employee available to offer assistance isn't necessarily assigned to the department. At Walmart, for example, we had trouble locating an item, and the first employee we spotted worked in another department. She was kind enough to locate a pharmacy employee, but that extra step took up valuable time.
During our visits to stand-alone drugstores, we were approached almost immediately upon entering. At Kroger, Target, and Walmart, by contrast, we had to seek out assistance, and the only pharmacy employees we saw were behind the counter. Although easy to spot, they were less accessible than those at the stand-alone pharmacies. (At our local Rite Aid, the store was laid out in such a way that the pharmacy counter had a clear view of the entire store. A pharmacist offered help as soon as we were in earshot and could have directed us to the correct aisle from her vantage point.)
In some cases, a good pharmacist can win consumers' loyalty despite the store's limitations. Amy Hall, of Indianapolis, is loyal to her local Walgreens because she likes the pharmacist and prefers to keep her family's prescription history at one chain, which enables the staff to watch out for potential drug interactions, allergies, etc. Judy Stevens, of Waldo, Ohio, patronizes the local Rite Aid because she and her husband have found the pharmacy staff helpful and knowledgeable -- although they purchase other drugstore merchandise at Walgreens for the reward points.